Road Trip! Milford Sound and Queenstown

Each of our New Zealand stops lasts two weeks, and we tend to go on one trip that takes us away from our base overnight. Our present spot on Shag Point is the farthest south we get in New Zealand and we were torn between getting to see more of the coast nearby and seeing other parts of the South Island. We decided on a whirl across the South Island to see Milford Sound and Queenstown, returning through the wine country of Central Otago.

On our loop south, we crossed miles of sheep pasture. This is the part of New Zealand where sheep outnumber people more than twenty to one. The yellow hillside in this photo is covered with gorse, an invasive species that sheep won’t eat. (Winnie-the-Pooh fell into gorse bushes and found them very prickly). Many plant and animal species thrive in New Zealand’s cool and rainy climate, which is part of the reason that invasive species are an ongoing menace.

As I’ve mentioned, every mammal is invasive. One of these, a brush-tailed possum came to our patio door to invade us! He stared through the glass and was only intimidated from trying to get in the house when he hit his nose hard on the glass.(Possums are not related to opossums found in the US). Possum eradication includes the development of a merino wool/possum fur fiber blend that is very soft. It has become popular for sweaters, scarves, and gloves.

As we drove west, the high mountains of the Fjordland National Park rose up in the distance. The huge park encompasses the southwest portion of the South Island of New Zealand and is about the size of Connecticut. We arrived in Te Anau, the closest jumping-off spot for Milford Sound, in the afternoon. The sun was bright and there was almost no wind, it was beautiful.  Lake Te Anau is a very long, narrow, deep lake bordered by snow-capped mountains. We watched a seaplane take off with groups of sightseers as we strolled to the local bird sanctuary from our hotel. It was great to stretch our legs after the long drive.

There are very few roads into the Fjordland National Park, the longest runs from Te Anau to Milford Sound. The drive is about 120 km and takes 2 1/2 to 3 hours depending on how many times you stop. From the open space along Lake Te Anau, the road rises around Mirror Lakes, where the reflections in the water were a bit blurred by the rain. The view of the mountains was impressive, with clouds encircling the mountains like smoke rings around Santa’s head in “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.

Our next stop was Monkey Creek, to look for blue ducks. We saw no ducks, but were entertained by a Kea parrot, a largish, short tailed, mischievous, and endangered species. One flew to the top of a van full of tourists. Its goal was to chew anything that looked like it might come off–they particularly like rubber gaskets. It has a very long and pointed beak, so I kept my distance. We saw it ride off on top of the van rather than let go of whatever it was chewing. Similar antics were on display as we waited our turn to go through the Homer Tunnel on the approach to Milford Sound.

The hillsides along our route were dripping with water from recent rains. Parallel streams too small to be called waterfalls poured down the bare rocky faces. There was water everywhere.

Our last stop before Milford was at the Cataract, a rushing stream that thunders through its deeply entrenched bed in the surrounding rock. The twisting rock shapes are a reminder of the power of the rushing water. The plants growing around the cataract were brilliant green.

At the end of the trail is Milford Sound, a settlement consisting of a visitors center, gift shop, short walking trail, and embarkation pier. The Sound itself is a fjord, deep and narrow, running inland from the Tasman Sea to the Milford Sound settlement. The water is dark, dark green, backed by hillsides of dense forest, and sheer vertical cliffs of rock. Snow clings to the upper reaches of the mountains that stretch away from the boat landing. We strolled the trail, watching the birds and the boats coming and going. A small ship on a multi-day tour stood off the pier for a while as smaller ships arrived and departed.

This is a majestic landscape that makes you think about “big” things. The meaning of life, the tiny size of each of us, and our place within nature. It’s a moving place. The reality requires you to create a bit of space for contemplation around yourself as you think about all these interesting things while you stroll. Around you are people walking both ways on the trail speaking all kinds of languages, buses hurry to the pier and back trailing a thin wake of diesel smoke. Looking out over Milford Sound, though, the noise recedes into the background and the majesty of nature takes over.

We left Milford Sound with regret. Not that there was anything more to see, but with the melancholy that comes from turning away from a truly impressive view. We passed the keas at the tunnel entrance, stopped for one more look for the blue duck at Monkey Creek (and saw one!) and continued all the way to Queenstown, two and a half hours down the road. We strolled to the downtown area from our hotel and had fun window-shopping in the drizzle. We ate at the peculiarly-named Botswana Butchery. After dinner we stopped in a leather store and found the red vest I have been looking for (red, natural shearling inside, pockets, made in New Zealand).

On the way back to Shag Point we stopped at Bungy Bridge, something of a family historic site. This is where Lyra went bungee jumping on the spring break of her semester abroad. From the side of an old bridge just off the main highway we watched young people jump into the void and then bounce upside down for a while…

After the bridge, we focused on wineries, stopping at Amisville near Queenstown, and Weaver Estate near Alexandra. Weaver had particularly interesting offerings for people who like white wine, including a Pinot Noir Rose, a faintly orange-tinted pinotgris, as well as other whites, natural “orange” wine, and pinot noir. We enjoyed our visits and bought some wine, ending up back at home at Shag Point before long. We don’t have to worry about driving when it gets dark because the sun doesn’t set until 10:01 pm this week. (The sun rises at 5:15 am but I’m not awake to notice.)



Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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